Graft Converts a Serbian Gristmill into a Radisson Blu Hotel
If there’s one European capital in the wrong place at the wrong time, it’s Belgrade, Serbia. The city, located where the Danube intersects a smaller river, the Sava, has been razed a sobering 44 times over the course of 115 wars. Given that history of destruction, inhabitants can do one only thing: Excel at rebirth.
A building near the banks of the Sava offers its own resurrection story. Constructed in 1902 as a gristmill, it ground wheat into flour for bakeries with the help of the most advanced steam-powered technology of the time. After a fire in the 1980’s, however, the enterprise was abandoned. The derelict property spent decades as a magnet for squatters, teenage lovers, and filmmakers. (Horror movies, mostly, with the occasional porn flick.)
When architects Lars Krückeberg, Wolfram Putz, and Thomas Willemeit, founding partners of Graft Gesellschaft von Architekten, slipped past the “no trespassing” sign, something powerful resonated from the crumbling brick walls, the rusted cast-iron columns, and the web of broken machinery. “Dangerous. . .but so beautiful,” Krückeberg remembers. The wooden roof—well, that was mostly gone. Sunlight spilled in through a yawning cavity.
Krückeberg, Putz, and Willemeit were visiting at the invitation of the Soravia Group, which already had plans under way to rebuild the ruins as part of the Radisson Blu Old Mill Hotel. Impressed by the way Graft had handled the conversion of a 1960’s high-rise in Tbilisi, Georgia, into the Radisson Blu Iveria Hotel, the developer hired the firm to design interiors both for the four-story mill and for a U-shape 10-story ground-up tower behind. The project would encompass the mill’s reception area, lobby, bar, ballroom, conference center, and 38 guest rooms and suites; the tower’s 198 guest rooms and suites; and a restaurant in between.
Krückeberg told Soravia straight-off, “No matter what you do here, please collect every single brick and every little piece of wood or metal, because we would like to use them.” The resulting marriage of the historic and the contemporary also incorporates large swaths of plain painted wall, a deliberate tribute to the color white, since Belgrade means white city. “That was us saying, ‘We like your white so much—we’re using it as our canvas,’” he explains.
In the expansive lobby, where the ceiling soars to 20 feet, that means the terrazzo flooring and even the swivel chairs are white. Mixing white with dark brown, the lobby’s statement piece is an installation of stepped seating that Willemeit calls “a stage.” Its organic curves descend from the rear wall to flow around a row of columns.
The exposed brick of the opposite wall is original, but it had to be torn down and properly reconstructed. Re-laying the brick was no easy feat, since the construction workers had to learn how to do it. “It’s funny how skills get lost when everybody is building in concrete and cinder block,” Putz chimes in.
Another found material is the steel surfacing the wall behind the reception desks—a 100-year-old oil tank was painstakingly dismantled to yield sheets that could be laser-cut with the hotel logo. Meanwhile, pine from beams turned out to be too soft for flooring in high-traffic areas and therefore takes the form of furniture and paneling. And cast-iron columns, no longer needed for structural purposes, were transported outside and bolted into the ground to create a sort of über-industrial colonnade.
Old brick reappears in guest quarters in the mill. To give those in the tower a similarly rough aesthetic, a graphics consultant designed stencils for murals of abstracted machinery including huge turning gears. They were then spray-painted onto the concrete walls.
One material used throughout was not an on-site find: copper. It tops tables in the lobby, lines the elevators, and, in paint form, surfaces walls in the restaurant. That’s a nod to Serbia’s status as a major producer of the metal.
Project Team: Konstantin Buhr; Andrea Göldel; Sascha Krückeberg; Sebastian Gernhardt; Stephen Molloy; Denis Leo Hegic; Alice Mayer; Antonio Luque; Simon Takasaki; Tade Godbersen; Sonja Wedemeyer; Kim Harder:Graft Gesellschaft Von Architekten. Uma Architektur: Architect of Record. Michelle St. Jean Graphic Design; Strauss & Hillegaart: Graphics Consultants. Studio Dinnebier: Lighting Consultant. Finvest: Landscaping Consultant. Kvantum: Woodwork. LSG Group: General Contractor.